Queering Black Herstory: Janelle Monae and Gladys Bentley

When I began to research Harlem Renaissance pianist and singer Gladys Bentley a little over a year ago, I was struck by her similarity to Janelle Monae, who had then just released her second album,“ArchAndroid.” Monae’s gender-queer look — black tuxedo, black-and-white saddle shoe — is strongly reminiscent of Bentley’s trademark black-or-white tuxedo, top hat and cane. And in each case, the spectacle of a Black woman performer disrupting the gender binary has prompted a flurry of speculation about her sexual orientation.